Histories of Community-Based Art Education

Kristin G. Congdon, Doug Blandy, and Paul E. Bolin, editors
2001, 203 pages, National Art Education Association, Reston, Virginia, 703-860-8000.

In Histories of Community-Based Art Education, editors Congdon, Blandy, and Bolin present an eclectic volume of essays ranging from profiles of pioneers in museum education to a leading practitioner of Lithuanian weaving. Having issued a call for papers about "hidden histories" of arts education in 1998, the editors published an earlier volume on this topic, Remembering Others: Making Invisible Histories of Arts Education Visible, in 2000. If it's difficult to hold onto the thread of connection among pieces in the newly issued collection, it may be because it is made up of essays they liked but could not fit into the coherence of the first book. It also may be that the varied approach is intended — a strategy for achieving their mission of “...broadening of what is considered worthy of historical study...” in the education field.

The book confounded my expectations. While it was consistently about art and incorporated art projects and practices taking place in a range of settings, I could not always find the pieces' connection to the topic of education. The editors may be asserting that the presence of any audience for a work of art makes art an educational act, while I was seeking insight into educational methods. Many of the essays' opening abstracts and summarizing conclusions are dry, and some essays seem to end abruptly, as if edited to a specific length. These qualities make reading the volume unsettling.

Moving past this quirkiness, however, the collection contains true gems: fascinating characters, engaging questions, and historical insights. Parts of the writing are fresh and personal. It grapples with high art versus popular culture, and contemporary art versus folk and home-based art without becoming didactic. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Anna Curtis Chandler's groundbreaking storytelling programs that ushered in arts education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Ben Hartman's Historical Rock Garden, Kathryn Bloom's role in developing the Aesthetic Education program, and the meaning of the Scandinavian Sloyd tradition. Some essays I would have been inclined to dismiss at first were fascinating, such as Jean Ellen Jones's exploration of the personalities and roles of key assistants to famous outsider artists; Alice Arnold's portrait of her high school art teacher, Elizabeth Stein; or Faith Agostinone-Wilson's exploration of the development of craft kits — including her brief profile of Aleene Jackson, inventor of Tacky Glue (and author of Aleene: A “Tacky” Lady). I was moved by the portraits of several remarkable women who, due to gender bias and career choices, were undervalued by the institutions they served during their life times.

While refocused introductory essays and a re-organization might strengthen this book, one can see why the editors were compelled to bring these essays to light. If their thematic thread about arts education may be elusive, they successfully scan many facets of arts participation, presenting their value and contexts with candor and respect.

Reviewed by Frances Phillips, Program Officer, Walter & Elise Haas Fund